From personas to nudges: why successful transformation projects need behavioural science

Author BIOPublished 4 Min Read

Personas. We all use these fictional profiles of potential customers. Zara, the Instagram influencer, loves social media, yoga, vegan food and ‘experiences'. Greg, the engineer, married, works for a big company, down to earth, loves his kids and likes to get things done. Mei, the go-getting financial executive, ambitious, time-poor, into cocktails, designer labels and 5-star hotels.

Personas definitely still have their place in any business which serves customers – yes that’s all of them. In marketing they’re very useful for copywriters who need to think about who they’re talking to and the kind of language likely to get a positive response, as well as what particular aspects of a product or service might appeal to them. Ditto for strategists, even if they wrote the personas in the first place, and for designers, who again need to know who they’re designing for. But what about in transformation projects?

They’re still of crucial importance of course. They provide guidance and inspiration for project teams when ideating new features. It’s only by thinking about all the different types of users, their wants, needs and frustrations, that we can even begin to design products that will appeal to different types of customer. They’re also useful further on in the design process; for instance, if we know our potential users are direct and practical people who just need to get things done, we can design accordingly, without unnecessary chit-chat or distraction.

For transformation projects it’s crucial that personas are carefully written, nuanced and kept fully up-to-date. The 21st-century world is so fast-moving that those old personas lurking around from five years ago might not have much relevance today and in this instance, new ones should be created if we’re really going to do justice to today’s market. But to create seamless and satisfying customer journeys we need more than personas can offer. To keep customers engaged in those journeys, to give them the reassurance they need to make decisions to move forward, and to gently and positively persuade them towards options that work best for the customer and the business in tandem, we need to take learnings from behavioural science.

Behavioural science addresses much more fundamental human impulses – patterns or quirks of behaviour, some of them irrational, that are common to all. These ideas were popularized in the book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, published in 2008 and since used by governments and marketers alike to prompt people to make better decisions.

When we’re creating digital products and services, knowing how to ‘nudge’ users towards positive decisions helps us create journeys that users are comfortable with, and helps the users themselves make decisions along the way. Users will also be far less likely to drop out along the way, as help text and additional explanations give them confidence in continuing, with reassurance that they are making the right decision in choosing this product or service.

Take social proof for example. When people see other people using something, they’re more likely to adopt it themselves. User reviews, positive statistics (‘90% of customers like you chose this option’ ‘4 million people are benefiting from our services) case studies and testimonials are some of the ways we can provide social proof to customers that they are making the right choices. Careful consideration should be given in each case. There’s no point overloading a journey with every social proof point possible, as they will become a distraction. It’s also worth remembering that no reputable UX designer or agency would get behind any ‘social proof’ that isn’t genuine or tries to send the user down a ‘dark pattern’, i.e. bamboozle them into agreeing to extra costs they really don’t want or need. In fact, this is true of all behavioural nudges. Richard H Thaler, co-author of Nudge, stated “Designs should be transparent and never misleading, easy to opt out of, and driven by the strong belief that the behaviour being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged”. In fact, every copy of the book he autographs he signs ‘Nudge for good’.

The preference of people to go for default options is another behavioural quirk. The highlighted ‘default’ is given natural authority in the mind of the user because it’s been already picked out; it’s also the path of least resistance. So much of the time it’s what people will choose, and this is helpful e.g. if you’d rather people opt for contact by email rather than post. When choice is linked to cost, the default is often not the ‘budget’ option, nor the ‘expensive’ one, but the one in the middle, which seems ‘fair’ and is perhaps also most likely to appeal to the majority of people who may see themselves as middling sorts.

Personalisation is another simple nudge that has repeatedly been shown to uplift or change responses. It’s become normal to address customers by their names in the digital arena, but Daniel Read, Professor of Behavioural Economics at Warwick Business School has suggested a different way it can be used. If fast food outlets wrote the names of customers on their takeout bags, those customers would be more likely to find a bin for them, rather than throw them onto the street.

Having a behavioural layer to innovation and transformation projects is extremely powerful, because at the end of the day, successful change isn’t just about technology, it’s about understanding how we operate as humans. And happily, it’s an approach which means that every project is fascinating, whether it’s a financial service, a booking system, or a healthcare app. The tech may be impressive but it’s the humanity that people respond to. 

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